Western Short Story
He came up out of a side trail where long-gone Indians had carved a way up to the stone of the Singing Star, old territory for him. On the skyline ahead was the outlaw he’d trailed for more than 100 miles, the wanted man almost saying his name the way he rode a horse, head tilted left, gun hand never on the reins. Another day’s work was ahead of bounty hunter Frye Pitts and then they’d be in Quipilanta, him and his quarry.
Pitts, just past his 30th birthday, wore the marks of time on his face. His brow was carved by long concern and his chin firmed up from life’s lessons. In the saddle he was aware of the earth around him, and things that moved on it.
He wondered if Quipilanta had changed much in the ten years since he left, how many of the people had moved or passed on, if Cal Gentry was still wearing the shiny badge. Gentry’d rather shoot a bounty hunter than pay him. Some towns get shaped that way, by the badge and how it’s worn. Quipilanta had been Gentry’s town.
The rider ahead had not looked back in half a day at least. Now it was past noon, with the sun falling away from one side of the mountain. On the other side, Quipilanta would be hot in the sunlight. Did Jake Breda still run the saloon? He was sure he’d remember the name of the saloon in a while, the way it hung just in front of him, short as a whisper.
When Gentry married Sally Brecklin, Pitts had packed his saddle bag, swung a blanket and a poncho into a bed roll and rode out of town.
He had no idea where he was going, and he never looked back.
At many points on this latest bounty chase, he could have captured Sticks Washburn, but there had been no jail to deliver him to out on the trail and no sheriff to demand the bounty from. Now, Washburn, a third-rate shooter, but a first-rate killer, bank robber and train robber, heading in the right direction, was likely leading him home.
The one dance with Sally Brecklin had stayed with Pitts for the ten years he’d been away. She appeared easily for him now, an aroma almost, almost a touch. Sometimes he heard a soft, throaty laughter, the way a canyon echo might assert itself long after true sound lets go.
He looked up to the Singing Star, high on a rocky peak. Though just a single stone, it sat out of place, as though unbalanced, a threat to fall any minute. As kids, he and pals had squirreled through the area, wondering about the “star,” trying to find the one night in the year when a star, as believed, practically sat on the top of the rock with a sudden and constant wind whirling about it, whistling a song. The song, according to local Hopi and Zuni Indians, never changed. Pitts had no way of knowing how long the song had been around, but the ancient Anasazis figured in the early ritual, according to legends held close in the tepees.
He was amazed, further on the trail, to see a small spring of water still leaking out of a cliff face at head level, at the bend of the trail where, on a cool enough day, you could see a slim column of smoke from a town stove. Quipilanta, from the same view, appeared gray and somber atop the grass.
To Pitts, few things stayed the way they were made. Most others changed. His mind found solace and disturbance in both directions. That never changed, he realized.
He touched the spring’s water while still in the saddle, filled a canteen at arm’s reach. As a kid he had filled his canteen there, took care of his horse, quick-washed a few times after searching for wandering or lost cattle in tight little canyons. Once, on a hot Sunday afternoon, Sally had refreshed herself beside the spring during an afternoon ride. That picture sat with him as if it was the day before, the way a crystal pearl of water sat on her neck as pretty as a necklace, and then slid down and rolled elsewhere.
With the Singing Stone and the spring near at hand, he could feel Quipilanta closing in on him. It carried, more of Sally Brecklin and, of course, some of the shine from Gentry’s badge. As soon as the opportunity arose in town, he’d collar Washburn, lock him in Gentry’s jail, and demand his bounty; let Gentry make his way with any option he chose.
Washburn, probably thirsty for a beer or a whiskey, had passed the spring and was headed downhill on the trail. Once, on that slow, downhill stride, he looked back, but Pitts was still hanging back, generally out of sight, content with knowing the direction, possibly the destination, that the wanted man was on. The 100 mile ride was on a trail Pitts knew right from the beginning, the pull of it too real to ignore.
Pitts had seen Sticks Washburn in a bar in Escalido and recognized him immediately as being on one of the wanted posters stashed in his saddle bag. But Escalido had no sheriff, no jail, so there’d been no sense putting a rope on him until he got close to a town with a sheriff and a jail. As a bounty hunter for almost 10 years, it was one of his strict rules. With that rule squarely in his mind, decisions came easier.
When Washburn finally hit the flats of the prairie, the first star spilling light, and started straight for Quipilanta sitting on the far edge of the grass, Pitts held back his horse, biding Washburn’s turn at the saloon where he was certain to visit.
Flickering window lamps showed the shape of the town. A half ring against the river was the usual way people spoke about Quipilanta. The brightest light came from saloon, dead center in the circular road. Once in a while a shadow passed across the illumination scattered onto the road. Pitts was sure one of those shadows was Washburn’s.
Fifty feet either side of the town had descended into solid blackness, yet Pitts circled most of the way around to come in from the other side … just in case Washburn decided to look behind him for a change.
His horse, slowed by the reins, plodded almost silently on the road as Pitts passed the town jail and sheriff’s office. The windows were dark; no horses were tied to the rail in front.
Pitts wondered if Quipilanta was no longer a busy place, how Gentry spent his time.
He was still moving slowly toward the saloon, when he heard a woman scream. The voice of the scream slammed through him hard as a gunshot, the range familiar, the tone a known holdover in his memory.
Instantly his hand dropped to the pistol grip, paused, swung away as he measured all his options in a freakish second.
Dismounting as a second scream issued from the saloon, he saw two men rush out of the saloon, hiding from danger. A few yells ensued, and a gun was fired inside the saloon.
Another voice, a crude voice, said, “She tried to dip into my money bag. Anybody got objections to teaching a tramp a lesson in decency? I sure don’t.”
He swung his pistol around in a slow but steady fan, the threat swinging in the arc all the way. “Speak up or shut up. I’m damned thirsty and been on a long ride.” He drained off a shot of whiskey as he stared hard in turn at each customer.
Nobody in the room moved.
As he put down his glass, Frye Pitts, a man Washburn did not know, had never seen before but who had been on his trail for over 100 miles, walked in through the swinging doors.
Washburn still held the working lady by the arm. Signs of pain crossed her face. His gun was smoking, and a wounded man, as still as pre-dawn shadows, bled slowly on the floor.
“You got anything to say, mister?” Washburn said, swinging his gun towards Pitts, now walking unconcernedly towards the bar.
Unhurried, a slight disdain in his voice, a man wide at the shoulders, thin at the hips, Pitts said, “Other than hello, turn that thing the other way before it goes off in your hand, and ask the barkeep to set up a drink for a thirsty rider, I got nothing else to say. I just hit town from the west and sure earned that drink.”
He continued his casual walk to the bar. “I’m damned hungry too. That’s a mean world out there when you got no steak in your frying pan or spider.” He had not seen Washburn eat a meal in two days.
The working lady, in a flaming red dress hugging her torso, let her mouth hang open as she looked at Frye Pitts. Her mouth stayed ajar, and silent. Her eyes, hazel green eyes, trying to adjust to what they were seeing, also remained wide open. The green of them was soft as sweet water.
The barkeep’s mouth hung open in concert with the lady’s, and a deep breath hung in a crawl space in his chest.
Pitts said, “Mister, you got a problem with a thief, yell for the sheriff.” He looked at the man behind the bar, seeing Jake Breda in the same old spot. “Where’s the sheriff?”
Breda said, “Died three months ago. Nobody wants the job. Asked everybody. No takers. He’d been a long time on the job.”
“How’d he die?”
“Took a look the wrong way at the wrong time. Right here in front of me.”
“Was he a good man?”
“Good at some things. Not much good for her.” Breda looked at the working lady. “Left her with nothing.”
Frye Pitts, staring at the woman, said to the bar keep, “How much does the job pay?”
“Twenty-five a month and a meal here each day. We got good grub.”
“Seeing as I got nothing, I’m new in town, and I need a few things, I’ll take it. You got the rights to make the offer?” Pitts let a smile cross his face. Partial recognition, one could say.
Breda came around the counter with the badge and handed it to Pitts. “You’re the new sheriff in Quipilanta, so clear this mess up, will you? This fella here says the lady tried to steal from him.” He nodded at Washburn. “I don’t really believe him. She’s a real lady. Been a lady for a long time.”
Frye said, “That’s easy enough to clear up, barkeep. I’ll take that first meal though. I’m hungry as a newborn tweeter. And a beer for me and one for the gent who’s holding the lady there.” He pointed at Washburn, pushed his empty beer glass across the bar, and turned his back on Washburn.
Laughing loudly, letting go the working lady, Washburn said, “I like your spirit, Sheriff. You know where to start the job … right in the belly.” He put his revolver away and walked towards Pitts, a huge grin spreading on his face; to find a friendly enemy under any circumstance was as good as a gift.
The grin on his face disappeared as Frye Pitts, home for the first time in 10 years, in front of his old girlfriend and the love of his life, recognized by the saloon keeper, drew his weapon, aimed it right in Washburn’s face, and said, “Don’t make a move for that gun, Sticks Washburn, or you’re a dead man. The pistol waved lightly back and forth.
“The bounty on you says dead or alive and I am not too particular about how you take it. I heard how you killed those folks back there in Three Forks, and their kids too. I’ve been tracking you for more than 100 miles, waiting to find a jail to lock you up in, and a sheriff to pay the bounty. Now, I got both.”
He pinned the badge on his shirt with his free hand and rolled the cuffs of his shirtsleeves over it so that it glistened.
The lady in the red dress had not yet caught her breath.